After a few weeks in the United States, I’m finally back in Liguria, despite Delta’s best efforts to keep me out. Two cancelled flights and the usual sciopero later, Monterosso was waiting for me with an unusually cloudy sky. Sciopero (pronounced show-per-oh) means “strike” and in Italy, it’s a pretty common occurrence. Unlike in the U.S., however, the Italians are kind enough to let you know in advance the exact time their strike will start and end, which in my humble opinion defeats the purpose, but certainly makes something inconvenient a little less of a nightmare. My particular sciopero yesterday was unique in that it was an “everything” strike – not just train, or fishermen, or buses – everyone from highway toll collectors to train conductors took the day off. I reasoned that perhaps Italy was envious they didn’t get their own Labor Day, but Manuel didn’t exactly get my joke and informed me the workers just wanted more money. Meno male (“all the better”) we didn’t have to pay tolls on our drive back to Monterosso from Pisa, everyone informed us. Regardless, I was able to arrive back here after an annoying 22 hours of travel.
After some uneventful unpacking, organizing and the like, we went to a dinner in Levanto which was one of my favorite types of informal, friendly dinners that are so common here. A group of 15 people, some old friends, some strangers and one American, eating a potluck of sorts off paper plates with flimsy forks in a dimply lit alleyway off Piazza Cavour at a long picnic table. The food in situations like this is my favorite kind – filling, unfussy, and the sort of local treats you would never be able to find served on a fine dining menu. Most impressively, it was almost all cooked by the men, who have as strong opinions about the ratio of herbs in the gattafin as they do about their favorite calico (soccer) teams.
Levanto is the next town north of the Cinque Terre and, compared to my tiny little Monterosso, a bustling metropolis of almost 6,000 people and parts of its commune are included in the Cinque Terre National Park area. Though there is a challenging hour and a half hike one can make from Monterosso through the hills, car or train are the more popular ways of getting here, and depending on your tolerance for loopy, climbing roads without guardrails, train is -in some cases -preferred. What is most notable about Levanto, besides the vast stretches of crystal blue Ligurian Sea (not unusual) and the crashing waves dotted with surfers (definitely unusual) is the presence of one of my favorite things in the world – gattafin.
Gattafin is a treat from Levanto. The anchovies we feasted on last night, lightly breaded and fried, caused some argument among our mixed group of Monterossini and Levanto residents as to whose anchovies were whose, and, of course, whose were better. Though the edge might have been grudgingly given to the famous acciughe of Monterosso, the gattafin is, without any doubt, a Levanto specialty. In fact, if it were to be served in Monterosso, for example, my Levanto friend Siliva assured me that legally, they would have to write it as "Gattafin di Levanto" on the menu - a protected regional product, name and all.
From what I could best understand, gattafin is an ancient snack stuffed with herbs gathered by hand from the mountains as the women waited for their husbands to finish work (though no one really does that anymore – they buy their herbs at the store). From what I could taste, it was something of a fried spinach pie – only, without the spinach (instead, something like chard or beet greens), less cheese, and a touch of nutmeg. And from what I could Google, it also included a bit of egg and sweet onion, mixed with the bitter greens and then fried in a light dough pouch until golden brown. The women of Levanto, allegedly, used to gather these wild greens and herbs from the hills around the town quarry, nicknamed “la gatta”, giving the snack the dialect nickname of gattafin. I cannot confirm or deny this, but it’s a cute story and makes some sense. Coupled with the anchovies, some fresh grilled sausage, eggplant and braised, long, beautifully bitter radicchio, it made quite a filling supper. I reached for my third (or fourth) gattafin, as I tried to readjust my ears and head to the rapid fire Italian surrounding me from all angles. Everyone lifted their glass for a toast to the end of August – everyone here works in the hospitality industry, as this is a tourist area, and August is especially difficult as it is packed with foreigners and vacationing Italians. Though heavily dependent on the tourists and their money, it’s somewhat of a double edged sword for locals who love their profitable businesses, but miss their quiet piazza and pristine, empty beaches. As the glasses lifted, the group of Ligurians toasted the exit of the tourists – “see you next year foreigners!” – and without a giggle or a hint of irony, locked eyes with me as we clinked glasses.
I’m still not sure if leaving the U.S. felt more like leaving home or coming back here felt more like coming home, but it’s nice to know that you can have two places that have your heart – two places that you can start to feel like you belong too, even if it’s just a little. As I reached for what may very well have been my fifth gattafin, the man next to me joked that I really must be learning Italian, since I learned to eat like one.
In any case, it’s good to be home.